Former Husker Split End Todd Brown’s Dream Was to Play for NU
By Shane G. Gilster
Although he caught only 65 passes in his career, a number that many top receivers catch in a season these days, former NU split end Todd Brown was one of the best receivers in Nebraska history.
He wasn’t the biggest (6-0, 175) but he had speed to burn.
“My inroad was my speed,” Brown said.
His 40 was blazing fast at around 4.36/4.38 handheld. “I was right in there with Irving Fryar… we were side by side when running.”
At the NFL Combine, Brown remembered, the only receiver faster was Olympic-level sprinter Willie Gault out of Tennessee.
As a high school track star at Holdrege High School, Brown ran the 100 meters and was a long- and triple-jumper. As a senior in 1978 he was a state champion in all three of those events, running the 100 in 10.8 and breaking the state record in the triple jump by four feet. His record of 50-2¼ stood until it was broken this year.
“Nebraska offered me a scholarship for track, but my heart was to play football for Nebraska. You can’t play football on a track scholarship,” Brown said. “So, I passed up a track scholarship and walked on the football team. The reason coach (Tom) Osborne didn’t give me a scholarship was because he didn’t know if I was fast enough. So, I ran the 100 meters in the spring of my senior year.”
After proving he had the speed and necessary athletic ability, Brown earned a scholarship in the second semester of his freshman season.
“I would have played even if they didn’t offer me one,” Brown said. “It was a huge dream for me to play for Nebraska. When you were a young man, the pinnacle of sports in our state was to represent the state. It was almost a patriotic thing, like going to the army or something. There was something that was compelling inside. It was representing my community; it was my representing my family, representing my God, to be a Husker. It was really important.
“I don’t know if young people feel that way anymore, but in my high school when I grew up, if you wore an Oklahoma shirt, you would get razzed all day long. It was like another country; you were flying a different flag. I was so loyal, not just me but our community and everybody I grew up with. If you felt like you had a shot to (play football at Nebraska), try it. That is certainly what I did.”
Brown was lucky as a freshman. Within the first week, he was one of five players on the team to redshirt in the new freshman redshirt ruling. Dave Rimington, Roger Craig and Jamie Williams were part of that group.
“So, I never played on the freshman team,” Brown said. “It was the best move strategically that could have happened to me. I came up there just wanting to make a name for myself. I was only 160 pounds, but was really fast. It (redshirt year) toughened me up and taught (me) to go full speed. I saw playing on the scout team as an honor, and if I could score touchdowns on the Blackshirts, I could start for Nebraska. If you ask the defensive coaches from back then, I raised a lot of havoc in their secondary as a freshman against the Blackshirts. I scored a lot of touchdowns and gave them a good look.”
For a Nebraska boy from a small town, it was more than just football. That became apparent to teammates who didn’t know what Husker football was all about.
“It was important to me, it was important to my community, and it was important to my family. These people from out of state got a sense of this being a bigger deal than your average college football,” Brown said. “I think it gave them a sense of pride for the state and a love for the people of this state, and ultimately it elevated everybody’s game. This isn’t just about me becoming an NFL football player. We didn’t worry about that.”
As a redshirt freshman in 1979, Brown bided his time on the depth chart. He did not have any receiving stats but learned from veteran receivers like Tim Smith. Then, as a sophomore in 1980, Brown won the job at split end and didn’t disappoint, having his best season as a Husker in catches (28), yards (416) and touchdowns (five).
Brown said the most memorable game of his career came in that 1980 season, in a home game against No. 16 Florida State. At the time the Seminoles were not the marquee program they are today. As Brown put it: “It was just another nonconference we’re-going-to-kill-’em kind of game.”
It didn’t turn out that way. Brown scored Nebraska’s only two touchdowns and played well, but third-ranked Nebraska lost in an upset, 18-14, in a game that gave Florida State national credibility.
NU had a chance to win at the end when they drove to the Seminole 3-yard line with just 12 seconds to play, but as quarterback Jeff Quinn rolled left, he was hit by an FSU linebacker and fumbled.
“If Jeff wouldn’t have gotten hit, I was wide open in the end zone,” Brown said. “I ran a simple out pattern and I had their defensive back’s number all game, and he took a fake to the inside and I spun him around. So I was standing wide open in the corner of the end zone as Jeff was getting hit and going down.”
At the end of the game Florida State coach Bobby Bowden sought out Brown and told him that he played a really good game.
Brown started again at split end in 1981 and 1982. Even though he didn’t catch as many passes as most receivers would have liked, for Brown, just winning mattered most.
“For me, I wasn’t there to catch balls, I was there to win football games. I was there to represent my state and to do whatever it takes to help the Huskers win,” Brown said.
When Brown caught the ball, it was a big play. He knew he was going to get only three or four balls a game, but that they were going to be big plays. He had several games in which he caught two touchdowns, despite catching a total of only three passes.
“It was a different way of thinking about a receiver. It was just as much fun to block and spring Mike Rozier or Roger Craig on a big run than it was for me to catch a pass. I was there for the team, not for myself,” Brown said.
Brown and the 1982 team suffered probably one of the most gut-wrenching losses in Nebraska history. It came in State College, Pennsylvania, against the eighth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. Nebraska came in ranked No. 2, featuring probably the most talented offense of any Husker team ever. The offensive line had Outland and Lombardi Trophy winners Rimington and Dean Steinkuhler, tight end Williams, I-backs Rozier and Craig, quarterback Turner Gill and receivers Fryar and Brown.
“When we lost to Penn State out there because of those two bad calls, coach Osborne handled it like a man,” Brown said. “What he said at the end of the game was just a character builder. He said, ‘Guys, you want to win a national championship, you gotta play so much better than the other team that no one can take it away from you. So, no one say anything about the officiating, those guys don’t try and make bad calls, just don’t talk about it.’
“It was good for us to hear, because our hearts were broken. I felt we were as good a team Nebraska has ever put on the field.”
Not winning a national title didn’t define Brown’s playing career or his college experience.
“A national title would have been nice, but I got so much out of the game, the memories, the teaching, and the life experiences. Just playing for coach Osborne was enough.”
After Nebraska, Brown was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round but ended up playing Canadian football for six years before retiring.
The teaching, life experiences and lessons learned carried Brown into a rewarding profession.
“I was involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and became a Christian before I came to the University of Nebraska. That has been a driving force in my life,” Brown said. “I found a way to take my profession, or architecture and construction, and point it towards promoting the Gospel by designing and building churches across the United States.”
He is now the CEO of the company: Brown Church Development Group.
The company has projects coast to coast from California to Florida. They are one of the top companies in the country that builds churches and work mainly with Protestant, Baptist and independent Bible churches.
With his office in Kearney, the 62-year-old Brown enjoys life with his wife, Michele, on an acreage by Overton, an easy drive from his boyhood home of Holdrege. The couple has four children and eight grandchildren.
Two of his kids are twins. Micah played football at Kansas and experienced an Orange Bowl with the Jayhawks. Ashley was a Big 12 champion in the 100-meter hurdles at KU in the late 2000s. Another daughter, Justine, also graduated from KU. Son Isaac played football for Gill at Liberty University.
Brown was and always will be a perfect example of a Nebraska kid living out his dream. And he has nothing but high praise for how the NU football program enabled him to realize that dream.
“You knew that the Nebraska program developed you into a player that was competent and able to compete. It was more about the testimony of the Nebraska program than about something great about that individual. They turned willing kids into football players.”